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Why online grocery shoppers overwhelmingly shop in-store, too

A lot of attention is going to online grocery shopping lately. Consumers say they’re looking for quick and convenient options.

But are they following through with that?

As we look at the frequency of online shopping in this latest installment of Online Produce Shopping: The Path Forward, a collaboration between Blue Book Services and Category Partners, we’re finding some distinct trends.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers reported convenience and time savings as the most important motivators driving online produce purchases.

And yet, we still overwhelmingly shop in-store, especially for fresh produce. However, we see a distinct shift in shopping behavior in the form of frequency when comparing online to in-store.

Category Partners’ survey data found consumers purchase in-store more frequently than online, +11 points for fruit, and +17 points for vegetables purchased at least monthly.

Or put another way, of the 42 percent who said they purchase fresh produce online, most – 8 out of 10 fruit and vegetable buyers – said they choose to shop at least monthly. That compares with monthly in-store purchases at 95 percent for fruit and 97 percent for vegetables

The disparity jumps considerably when consumers were asked what percentage buy fruit or vegetables at least weekly. For online, those numbers drop to 58 percent and 48 percent respectively for weekly purchases. In-store, 88% of fruit and 80% of vegetable consumers buy weekly.

Compared to in-store shopping, those are rookie numbers.

If consumers want to save time and take advantage of the convenience offered by shopping online, why the contradiction?

“These frequency numbers, in conjunction with time savings and convenience offered online, appeared to be a brewing controversy early in our analysis. But as we dove further into the data, we noticed a third element that explained the apparent contradiction.” said Tom Barnes, CEO of Category Partners. He went on to say, “Online shopping tends to be more planned or list oriented. As a result, consumers have stated they buy more, or stock up, when purchasing online. So while consumers say they are in-store more frequently, their responses suggest it is more often smaller basket, in and out, shopping behavior.”

That certainly appears to be the case in certain categories where impulse sales have historically been important. While single bag purchase is still the norm for most shoppers, interestingly multiple unit cherry purchases are especially reflected in online cherry buyers.

“Whether to freeze for later or enjoy in the moment, it appears that thoughtful cherry purchases tend to be larger dollar sales. Our survey showed that forty percent (40%) of online shoppers are buying multiple bags, or nearly 4-times more than in-store shoppers,” said James Michael, VP of Marketing for Northwest Cherry Growers and a study cosponsor. “Interestingly, we noticed that online cherry buyers were twice as likely to be weekly shoppers as well. Perhaps that’s a factor of the previous purchase keeping them ‘on the list’, so to speak, so the chance of being forgotten while shopping in person is decreased.”

The difference between men’s and women’s shopping habits in-store and online also was notable.

Sixty-four percent of men bought fruit online at least weekly, compared to 53 percent of women, and 90 percent of men bought fruit in-store at least weekly, compared to 85 percent of women.

The study did not specifically look to uncover why men report shopping more frequently than women. With that in mind, Category Partners reported that 59 percent of men frequently or always buy a produce item online they had not intended to buy. Thirty-seven percent of women reported doing the same. The in-store impulse numbers between men and women are statistically even. And while not conclusive nor definitive, these impulse numbers suggest men may make more frequent impulse purchases to pick up those ‘one or two items I forgot.’

So, what now? How can retailers and marketers work together to use this information to spur more sales?

“Retailer communications that highlight time savings, emphasize/optimize delivery speed (still in time for dinner tonight) and reduced delivery fees or pick up fees for small orders may be ways to induce greater frequency of online purchases,” Barnes said. “Decades ago, retailers realized there was value in having limited item count express checkout lanes. Today self-checkout lanes are methods of reducing labor while making consumers feel more in control of their in-store experience and helping deliver a real or imagined improvement in speed at checkout. Maybe there is curb-side pickup equivalent to the express lane that retailers can develop that may drive frequency of purchase across a limited assortment of high frequency items.”

“I have been an avid user of online shopping services. Based on my order history and average time to fill my average basket in-store, my online retail service reports a running tally of the time I have saved as a result of using their company. Seeing the results in black and white helps me quantify and feel the value – time I can spend with my family or other chores – and keeps me coming back for more.” he concluded.


Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.